Tuesday, 31 March 2009

update: March

# of books read in March: 4

Cumulative total: 10

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)

Average number of books per month: 3.3 (if I can keep this up, I'll be happy!)

% by male authors: 70%
% by female authors: 30%

A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)

--The blurb--
"A History of Modern Britain confronts head-on the victory of shopping over politics. It tells the story of how the great political visions of New Jerusalem or a second Elizabethan Age, rival idealisms, came to be defeated by a culture of consumerism, celebrity and self-gratification. In each decade, political leaders thought they knew what they were doing, but find themselves confounded. Every time, the British people turn out to be stroppier and harder to herd than predicted. Throughout, Britain is a country on the edge first of invasion, then of bankruptcy, then on the vulnerable front line of the Cold War and later in the forefront of the great opening up of capital and migration now reshaping the world. This history follows all the political and economic stories, but deals too with comedy, cars, the war against homosexuals, Sixties anarchists, oil-men and punks, Margaret Thatcher's wonderful good luck, political lies and the true heroes of British theatre."
synopsis from www.lovereading.co.uk

--The review--
Marr's History of Modern Britain promises to enlighten us on the victory of shopping over politics, but given the prevalence of political content in the book, one does wonder if this is just a little tongue in cheek. Certainly Marr does cover the various consumer revolutions of technological gadgetry and the emergence of supermarkets and shopping centres (the likes of which had probably only been seen in America and possibly some parts of Asia before the 1960s), but the vast majority of the book covers the reigns of Britain's prime ministers since 1945, their mistakes and victories, and how their actions have at times had far-reaching consequences. While this book takes commitment (at 602 pages, not including notes), and perhaps could have done with a glossary of acronyms and some key terms at the back for the benefit of those who haven't studied history beyond A Level (or even GCSE), Marr does manage to make it lively and interesting, successfully interweaving political scandal with musical and other popular trends, from the Mini to the Beatles and, of course, the other type of mini.

The book is understandably complex, but thankfully not unreadable, and is clearly deeply researched - good for those who simply have an interest in British history and politics, and for those who were intrigued to know more after seeing Marr's 2007 TV series of the same name. Split into five sections, and then with each section split into many subsections, it's easy to pick up, put down again, and then pick up again, without having to plough through hundreds of pages before coming to a suitable break. It is not only written with knowledge, but thankfully also with humour in places. There are gaps, but these are negotiable in terms of their historical significance: Britain's criminal history was lacking or occasionally disproportionate, with no mention of the Moors murders, Dunblane, the murders of Sarah Payne, Holly Wells, and Jessica Chapman, or the high-profile disappearance of Madeleine McCann, with the murder of James Bulger being given only a cursory one-line mention. Britain's educational history was also lacking, with only changes in the compulsory leaving age being spoken of, and the massive shakeups to Britain's examination systems and syllabi being ignored. Perhaps the most surprising omission was the lack of discussion around mother-baby homes, as exemplified by Amanda Whittington's play Be My Baby, which were common in Britain until the 1960s, when extra-marital births began to be destigmatised (young unmarried pregnant women were sent away to these homes secretly, usually by a female relative, to have the baby and have it given up for adoption before returning home as if nothing had happened). It seemed odd that backstreet abortions, and the change of legislation regarding this, should be mentioned, while the secrecy involved in shipping the young, unmarried and pregnant off to mother-baby homes was not, especially when many of the adopted (and indeed their mothers) are probably still alive today.

The slew of punctuation errors in this tome is also curious. They almost exclusively involve errant commas (including them when they shouldn't be, not including them when they should be, and using them instead of other punctuation marks). It is unclear whether this is the result of the style of the television programme of the same name (i.e. Marr writing with his TV-presenter's hat on) or due to careless editing. Nevertheless, this does not, along with the omissions detailed above, in any way prohibit enjoyment of the book, and finishing it with better understanding of the various intricacies that are detailed therein certainly leads to a palpable sense of satisfaction. This is a worthy piece of contemporary history writing, a valuable source for historians to come, and a solid introduction to Marr's writing and expertise.

Other works by Andrew Marr
Age of Churchill (due out Oct 2009)
Britain From Above (2008)
Tools for Peace (2007)
Blair (2007)
My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism (2005)
Born in the Darkest Time of Year (2004; fiction)
The Day Britain Died (2000)
Ruling Britannia: Failure and Future of British Democracy (1995)
The Battle for Scotland (1992)
Being Human (1988)

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)

--The blurb--
"When Moose Flanagan and his family move home, yet again, and become residents of the famous prison island Alcatraz, things get interesting. First of all, they share the island with a few other families and a lot of pretty heavy-duty criminals including Al Capone. And secondly, Moose's sister is starting a new school, which everyone hopes will help her become more integrated with those around her. When Moose comes up with some pretty cunning money-making schemes based on his famous co-residents, he does not count on his sister becoming inadvertently involved. This is a charming, funny and utterly enchanting book that skilfully and delicately weaves a humorous tale with some important issues."
blurb from http://www.amazon.co.uk/

--The review--
Having heard about this one during my own visit to Alcatraz in early 2007, it had been on my mental list of books to read since catching sight of the unconventional title. It is aimed at teens and pre-teens aged 11-14, and so perhaps unsurprisingly I whizzed through it in a night, and as this perhaps reveals, it was worth it.

Painting realistic adolescents and children is often a challenge for adult authors, but Choldenko did a sterling job: Moose was stroppy, both with and without good reason, and macho, but also protective, contemplative, and slightly shy. This trend continued with all of the characters, from the neurotic mother to the hardworking and more laid-back father. Natalie took a little getting used to, primarily due to her speech patterns, but I've worked enough with children on the autistic spectrum to know that once you have met one autistic child, you certainly haven't met them all, so I ultimately felt able to buy into this.

More could have been said about the layout of the island, as just putting a photo in the front of the book and labelling it seems a bit of a cop-out. However, generally speaking you could imagine the surroundings perfectly adequately, from the poky apartment to the San Francisco school. The scheme on which the book is centred is ingenious, and it is rendered even more striking by the emotional backdrop of Moose's family, against which it is set. The end is both happy and chilling even if somewhat improbable (in fact, its improbability almost makes it better), and the author's endnote is helpful, informative, upbeat and personal in equal measure.

While the settings and action of the book could not be further from what we as readers know and from what the author herself knows, Choldenko clearly made this her own, investing personal emotion in it as well as deep historical research, which results in a personal, amusing and historically interesting story. Despite being a children's author, Choldenko should be on the 'one to watch' list of many adults too, and I just hope that the follow-up to this, due later this year, is not a total let-down in comparison.

Other works by Gennifer Choldenko
Al Capone Shines My Shoes (released Sept 2009)
If A Tree Falls At Lunch Period (April 2009)
Notes from a Liar and Her Dog (2003)

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)

--The blurb--
"Written in verse, this was Vikram Seth's first novel. Set in the 1980s, in the affluence and sunshine of California's silicon valley, it is the story of twenty-somethings looking for love, pleasure and the meaning of life."

--The review--
Having first encountered Seth's work in his most recent novel, An Equal Music, some years ago, I don't know why I didn't gravitate towards his other novels and poetry in the more immediate aftermath of reading it. However, The Golden Gate, which blends Seth's skills in building the narrative arc with his manipulation of diction and poetic phraseology, seemed a perfect choice when I happed upon it while browsing the library. It is of a reasonable length - not being a hefty tome like his other two novels - and one is able to easily read it as the backdrop to a lazy Sunday or to use it as a tool of light distraction during the journey to work.

While occasionally the rhymes seem a little forced, particularly towards the beginning of the novel when one is still adapting to the style and concept of the thing, generally they are creative, sometimes amusing, and almost always eloquent: you can open any page and find a line to take your breath away with its poetic beauty. The said poetic beauty does not, however, inhibit understanding of the plot, Seth twinning lucidity and mellifluity with panache and success. The storyline is absorbing and character is built effectively, although setting is often secondary. The fact of there being just a few characters serves to make The Golden Gate even more intense; an intensity which is even further compounded by Seth's kaleidoscopic vocabulary. His consistently high register is perhaps the only thing which does not make the novel accessible: as well as being a novel in verse, which is perhaps not the most appealing format for people who do not read very much, the author has an excellent command of the English language, and, in an age where things are allegedly being dumbed down all the time, perhaps unsurprisingly wishes to express it.

These things, however, were not negatives as far as I was concerned, only allowing me to enjoy the opus even more. Seth has successfully rendered life as we know it into the style of ancient epic, and this unique combination is something that he is unlikely to repeat, lest it become hackneyed (he presumably wishes to keep his fans on their toes). Any author would be proud of it at any time in their careers, let alone as a first novel, and this staggering debut should convince anyone who has not already been sold to advance further into Seth's oeuvre.

Other works by Vikram Seth
A Suitable Boy (1993)
An Equal Music (1999)

Mappings (1980)
The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985)
All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990)
Beastly Tales (1991)
Three Chinese Poets (1992)

From Heaven Lake (1983)
Two Lives (2005)

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)

--The blurb--
"Shipwrecked many years before the start of the play, Aegeon of Syracuse searches vainly for his lost wife, one of his twin sons and one of their twin servants. Landing in Ephesus he falls foul of an obscure law condemning him to death unless he pays an enormous fine within 24 hours. The clock starts ticking and the action of the play begins to unfold. Aegeon is not aware that his son, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio, have also landed in Ephesus, but even worse, it soon becomes clear to the audience that Ephesus is also the home of the lost twin and servant, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus.
So begins the comedy of errors, as the pairs of twins are repeatedly and hilariously mistaken for each other, much to the consternation of their friends, creditors and lovers. Yet the play is also shot through with more serious issues. The sentence of death hangs over the father from the very beginning of the play, strange things happen to time as the play progresses, and the space of trade and the marketplace are never far away. The Comedy of Errors is a much neglected play which is only now achieving the critical and theatrical attention it deserves."
from www.amazon.co.uk

--The review--
As a one-time English student, I've had plenty of exposure to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, culminating in a grand tour of the stage from ancient to modern as my dissertation, which of course made a stop in Shakespeare Land. The Comedy of Errors, however, was never one of the stops along the way, often overshadowed in favour of the more famous comedies. It's easy to see why this overshadowing has taken place: it isn't Shakespeare's most beautiful or funny or characterful play, and most of the jokes seem to rely on the infidelity and inattentiveness of the play's menfolk. It is generally not as strong as the other plays in either character or plot; act II in particular is especially laboured, and the feduciary strand of the storyline is not as lucid as either the character-based storylines in this play or the money-based stories in other plays.

However, this is not to say that you should put down the Comedy of Errors before you've even begun. There are certainly some eloquent moments, particularly in Act I and Act V:

"I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:"
"Though now this grained face of mine be hid
In sap-consuming winter's drizzled snow,
And all the conduits of my blood froze up,
Yet hath my night of life some memory,
My wasting lamps some fading glimmer left,
My dull deaf ears a little use to hear:"

These gems, demonstrating Shakespeare at his finest, make the play worth reading for these passages alone, but there are more high points in store, especially if you are a dramatist. Some of the stage directions, for instance, are delightfully inspecific in their time period, e.g. "a public place", which allows we 21st-century readers to easily imagine or represent Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse meeting in, say, a modern cafe or nightclub, should we so choose. Equally, while the iambic pentameters are relentless and can seem heavy and dogged on the page, experience suggests that this effect is for the most part banished in performance, leaving only the positive effects of the metre, thanks to suitably talented actors and the dexterity of the human voice.

The characters in this play are generally difficult to relate to, but the scenes between Luciana, Antipholus and Adriana are really very amusing, and the sisters and Aegeon are arguably the bolts that hold this play together. Act III is generally the most amusing of the five, and the stichomythic passages in acts III and IV are also very effective, accelerating pace and humour both on the page and on the stage. The popular Shakespearean theme of identity crisis appears in this play, and to great success, though it is again perhaps more easily decoded in performance than as a reader.

Being a comedy, all ends happily, and as with the vast majority of Shakespeare plays, multiple readings are warranted in order to truly gain the most from the play's details and subtleties (whether dialogic, character-based or plot-based). So, as a reader, I instruct you to have your imagination at the ready and proceed with abandon.

Other Shakespearean comedies
All's Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Winter's Tale

*Recommended editions: Arden, New Penguin, Cambridge School Shakespeare